One by one, some with a little hesitation, six hands went up on the debate stage Wednesday night when the eight Republican candidates answered whether they would support Donald Trump for president if he were a convicted criminal. Hand-raising is a juvenile and reductive exercise in any political debate, but it’s worth unpacking this moment, which provides clarity into the damage that Mr. Trump has inflicted on his own party.
Six people who themselves want to lead their country think it would be fine to have a convicted felon as the nation’s chief executive. Six candidates apparently would not be bothered to see Mr. Trump stand on the Capitol steps in 2025 and swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, no matter if he had been convicted by a jury of violating that same Constitution by (take your choice) conspiracy to obstruct justice, lying to the U.S. government, racketeering and conspiracy to commit forgery, or conspiracy to defraud the United States. (The Fox News hosts, trying to race through the evening’s brief Trump section so they could move on to more important questions about invading Mexico, didn’t dwell on which charges qualified for a hand-raise. So any of them would do.)
There was never any question that Vivek Ramaswamy’s hand would shoot up first. But even Nikki Haley, though she generally tried to position herself as a reasonable alternative to Mr. Ramaswamy’s earsplitting drivel, raised her hand. So did Ron DeSantis, after peeking around to see what the other kids were doing. And Mike Pence’s decision to join this group, while proudly boasting of his constitutional bona fides for simply doing his job on Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrated the cognitive dissonance at the heart of his candidacy.
Only Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson demonstrated some respect for the rule of law by opposing the election of a criminal. Mr. Hutchinson said Mr. Trump was “morally disqualified” from being president because of what happened on Jan. 6, and made the interesting argument that he may also be legally disqualified under the 14th Amendment for inciting an insurrection. Mr. Christie said the country had to stop “normalizing” Mr. Trump’s conduct, which he said was beneath the office of president. Though he was accused by Mr. Ramaswamy of the base crime of trying to become an MSNBC contributor, Mr. Christie managed to say something that sounded somewhat forthright: “I am not going to bow to anyone when we have a president of the United States who disrespects the Constitution.” For this Mr. Christie and Mr. Hutchinson were both roundly booed.
It’s important to understand the implications of what those six candidates were saying, particularly after watching Mr. Trump turn himself in on Thursday at the Fulton County Jail to be booked on the racketeering charge and 12 other counts of breaking Georgia law. Only Mr. Ramaswamy was willing to utter the words, amid his talk about shutting down the F.B.I. and instantly pardoning Mr. Trump, saying Mr. Trump was charged with “politicized indictments” and calling the justice system “corrupt.”
“We cannot set a precedent where the party in power uses police force to indict its political opponents,” he said. “It is wrong. We have to end the weaponization of justice in this country.”
This is the argument that Mr. Trump has been making for months, of course, but when more than three-fourths of the main players in the Republican field supports it, it essentially means that a major political party has given up on the nation’s criminal justice system. The party thinks indictments are weapons and prosecutors are purely political agents. The rule of law hardly has a perfect record in this country and its inequities are many, but when a political party says that the criminal justice system has become politicized, and that the indictments of three prosecutors in separate jurisdictions are meaningless, it begins to dissolve the country’s bedrock.
Mr. Pence said he wished that issues surrounding the 2020 election had not risen to criminal proceedings, but they did, because two prosecutors chose to do their jobs faithfully, just as the former vice president did on Jan. 6. He piously told the audience that his oath of office in 2017 was made not just to the American people, but “to my heavenly father.” But any religious moralizing about that oath was debased when he said he was willing to support as president a man whose mug shot was taken Thursday at a squalid jail in Atlanta, who was fingerprinted and had his body dimensions listed and released on bond like one of the shoplifters and car burglars who were also processed in the jail the same day.
Apparently Thursday’s proceedings were a meaningless farce to Mr. Pence, Ms. Haley and the other four. But most Americans still have enough respect for the legal system that they don’t consider being booked a particularly frivolous or rebellious act. The charges against Mr. Trump are not for civil disobedience or crimes of conscience; they accuse him of grave felonies committed entirely for the corrupt purpose of holding onto power.
Being booked and mug-shotted for these kinds of crimes represents degradation to most people, despite the presumption of innocence that still applies at the trial level. How does a parent explain to a child why a man in a mug shot might be the nation’s next leader? That should be a very difficult conversation, unless you happen to be a Republican candidate for president.
Source photographs by Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock and Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.